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by Barry Adams on 13th June 2012
Today we welcome a guest post from Barry Adams of Pierce Communications who explains why he believes web analytics is facing a tough road ahead.
It’s hard to escape the notion that web analytics will be facing some tough challenges in years to come.
There are a number of online trends around privacy coming to a head, and these are likely to have a strong impact on web analytics. The methods with which we track visits to our websites, and the measurements we use to judge online success will have to evolve to keep pace with this changing landscape.
First of all, there’s the EU Cookie Directive which requires all websites to ask for consent from users before tracking cookies can be placed. Fortunately in the UK, as well as in many other countries, ‘implied consent’ is deemed acceptable in most cases, which means our web analytics tracking is currently not at risk.
However, the EU Cookie Directive does serve to inform users about tracking cookies, and may lead to more users utilising their browser features that allow them to opt out of cookies – which introduces a greater element of uncertainty in our web analytics reports.
Additionally, Microsoft has announced that it will enable the ‘Do Not Track’ function by default in its latest browser, IE10. There is yet much uncertainty about how this will affect web analytics tracking cookies; whether or not Google Analytics and other web analytics software will comply with Do Not Track, or whether they will ignore it and place tracking cookies regardless.
With online privacy taking centre stage in many debates about the future of the internet, chances are that web analytics as we know it will come up against tough times. This means that, whatever emerges from these debates, web analysts needs to be ready for change.
Worst case scenario, we will eventually see a level of inaccuracy in our web analytics figures in excess of 50% as browsers enable Do Not Track by default and web analytics cookies comply. Now I don’t think this is likely to happen, but nonetheless it seems prudent to prepare for such a scenario.
So what can we do to prepare?
Below are a few steps you can take today to decrease your reliance on existing web analytics methods, and prepare for future analytics challenges.
(Re-)Define Online Success Metrics
First and foremost, we need to sit together with our clients and re-evaluate exactly what online success looks like. What metrics will we use going forward, and how can we most accurately measure these?
For ecommerce sites, I expect a growing reliance on sales reports as generated by the ecommerce platform itself (Magento, OpenCommerce, etc), as well as the sales reports the client maintains.
For sites that rely on softer conversions – submitted forms, phone calls – the agency needs to be kept in the loop on the clients own internal reporting. I also expect growth in systems that offer website-integrated phone call tracking.
Effectively, this results in an agency needing to inject itself in to the client’s business intelligence flows. As web analytics on their own become an unreliable measure of online success, the classic internal success metrics that businesses use need to be employed in the online realm and merged with the lessons that web analytics can continue to teach us.
Web analytics will never become entirely obsolete, as even with a high level of error there are important reports that web analytics alone can generate, especially around conversion funnels and click flows. However, these reports will need to be merged with business intelligence reports from other sources in order to deliver the kind of metrics that clients can rely on and extract actionable insights from.
This matches nicely with the growing convergence of online and classic marketing activities, and agencies repositioning themselves as marketing consultancies with online specialities (instead of pure providers of online tactics such as SEO and PPC).
Additionally, it is probably a good idea to look at alternative cookie-less means of registering website activity. That most ancient of web analytical methods, logfile analysis, may be making a comeback.
Webserver logfile analysis is nowhere near as advanced as cookie-based web analytics (in fact I hesitate to call it logfile ‘analysis’ at all, preferring to refer to it as ‘statistics’) however it doesn’t rely on cookies and it’s pretty much impossible for users to opt out of.
This makes it an ideal supplement to web analytics when it comes to reporting raw numbers, though it is likely to be much less useful for the more advanced analysis that we’re used to with web analytics that we are familiar with today.
There are also some encouraging projects underway to develop cookie-less web analytics utilising server-side tracking. Whilst still in its infancy, such server-side tracking methodologies could overtime develop in to fully featured alternatives to cookie-based web analytics.
It’s worthwhile keeping an eye on this fledgling field of web analytics to see what emerges in the future.
Future-proof Your Web Analytics
There is no better moment to start future-proofing your web analytics. There is currently a lot of uncertainty concerning this area, and as a result clients need to be aware that you are on top of things and are prepared to maintain the highest level of service, regardless of what the internet throws at us.
So talk to your clients, investigate alternative solutions, and keep a close eye on developments. Web analytics is under some indirect fire from various sources, so it’s time to build that bomb-proof measurement bunker that will serve you and your clients well for years to come.
The views expressed in this post are those of the guest author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.